Devil's Advocate - Building Bridges with Academics

Wine professionals and wine business researchers have inhabited very similar bubbles. Robert Joseph suggests that they ought to get together.

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Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

Technically, at least, I am no academic. Way back in 1973, I decided to take a gap year between leaving school and going to study English at Kings College in London. This extended to a second year working in my parents’ hotel and precociously taking over its wine cellar, followed by a five-year sojourn in Burgundy and the launch, on my return to the UK, of a wine magazine and then an international wine competition.

I’m not sure whether King’s has kept a place open for me over the decades but, in any case, if I were to go to university now, English would not be my subject. Today, I’d be more interested in some form of business studies. Which is why I’ve enjoyed being asked - despite my lack of official qualification - to teach, talk to and spend time with wine business school students in a number of countries.

Presentations in Burgundy

Most recently, this involved giving a keynote to the Academy of Wine Business Research international conference at the Burgundy School of Business in Dijon where papers were presented with topics such as

  • Will winning a gold medal help or hurt? The effect of wine jury’s expertise on purchase intentions in a retail context.
  • A comparison of prices and ratings of conventionally, organically and biodynamically produced Austrian wine.
  • Assessment of moderate wine consumption and alcohol abuse from the perspective of German and Hungarian consumers.

 

The researchers behind these efforts were professors and associate professors from across the world, with wide ranging levels of experience. Some papers were by young individuals; others, such as

  • A large-scale investigation into drivers of effective retail strategies for wine,

were multi-country initiatives involving senior academics including Professors Simone Loose of Geisenheim University in Germany and Larry Lockshin, of Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia, Adelaide.
 

Questionable Foundations

Quite a few of the papers were, it has to be said, based on foundations that might raise eyebrows among wine professionals. This was true, for example, of international research involving hundreds of participants selected to represent ‘typical wine consumers’, the majority of whom said they don’t buy wine in the supermarkets where 70-80% of wine is actually sold in the countries where they live.

My own eyebrows lifted at a presentation describing how participants in an online test were asked to compare and react to references to ‘Organic’ and ‘Biodynamic’ on very simply mocked-up, text-only wine labels. No normal wine drinker ever takes time to look at bottles in this way, so I’m dubious about anything they might tell the researchers after staring at the mockups on screen.
 

New Methodology?

The difficulty of separating what research lab rats often say they think and do from what they actually think and do, led me to particularly appreciate a paper by Magalie Dubois of the  Burgundy School of Business and Bordeaux University that involved getting 300 participants to taste samples of wine in their homes via the Timesens online platform. What set this apart was the researcher’s use of Facereader software to analyse and compare involuntary reactions with answers given to an online form. Those comparisons have yet to be completed, but I’m looking forward to seeing them, and to considering how the model could be used in other research.

Tightening up the methodology underlying many of the papers would not be very difficult - if the academics had closer contact with the people who rely on the daily challenges of making, buying and selling wine to pay their rent. That same contact might also help the researchers in the selection of their topics. It is my impression, having spent time with students and professors that their love of wine as a product too often overrides their enthusiasm for analysing the grubbier aspects of the wine business. So, they almost inevitably gravitate to subjects they find appealing.
 

The Advantage of Bridging the Gap

Bridging the gap between academics and business will involve understanding what makes both parties tick. Anyone working for a wine business ultimately needs to help that enterprise to create and sell wine. The toilers of academia have different imperatives. For them, success – funding and ‘tenure’ – still largely consists of the amount of work they can get peer-reviewed and published in respected journals.

A decade ago, this model was called into question at the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology in San Francisco by a group of scientists led by Stephen Curry of Imperial College in London. The academics concerned published a Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) that explicitly sought to “assess research on its own merits rather than on the basis of the journal in which the research is published… and [explore] new indicators of significance and impact”.

DORA has a website and a large number of supporters, but its influence seems to be limited within the ranks of wine business researchers. If they considered it, they might conclude that sharing readable and probably abbreviated versions of their work on other platforms might be particularly fruitful for them, especially given the struggle they have to to propel wine business data into top-flight academic journals. Publishing in media such as Meininger’s would have the additional benefit of providing exposure to companies that might be ready to help finance high quality research.
 

Translation Scientific Texts for the Wine Industry 

We certainly intend to help this to happen, as you will increasingly see over the next few months.

But the wine industry needs to come to the party too. Beyond the small number of vinous giants and generic organisations who can afford to spend money on it, far too few wine businesses place enough value on research and data. As Rico Basson of Vinpro – subject of last week’s interview – admitted, as recently as five years ago, South African wine producers were making almost no effort to learn who was buying their wine and why. Good data, like good marketing – another skill that’s undervalued by the wine industry – can be one of the best investments any business can make.
 

Pharma and Tech

The model for collaboration between commerce and academia is already well established in fields such as pharmaceuticals and tech. Cambridge University in the UK and MIT in the US are fuelled by these kinds of partnerships, while the vaccine created jointly by Oxford University and Astra Zeneca undeniably helped to save countless lives across the planet.

Wine and academia have yet to set the world alight in this way, but the pair are beginning to getting together, especially in the New World, at places like Sonoma State University in California and at Lockshin’s Herenberg-Bass which annually rakes in millions of dollars from high level research across a wide range of fields that have nothing to do with grapes.

So, even if I have no immediate plans to take up a place at any tertiary seat of learning, I’m going to do what I can to help build some bridges between the two sides of the equation – and would appreciate any help I can get.

 

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